High School a Time for Plays of All Kinds

April 2, 2015

By Jack Roberts
MHSAA executive director

At end of season or school year banquets attended by student-athletes and their parents, I often tell this short story about my mother that never fails to get a good laugh, especially from mothers:

“At the end of my junior year of high school I attended the graduation ceremony for the senior class on a hot and humid early June evening in our stuffy high school gymnasium. The bleachers on each side were filled to capacity, as were several hundred folding chairs placed on the gymnasium floor.

“The public address system, which was wonderful for announcing at basketball games or wrestling meets, was awful for graduation speeches. Person after person spoke, and the huge audience wondered what they had to say.

“I was present because I was the junior class president; and as part of the ceremony, the senior class president handed me a small shovel. It had something to do with accepting responsibility or carrying on tradition.

“In any event, the senior class president spoke briefly; and then it was my turn. I stepped to the podium, pushed the microphone to the side, and spoke in a voice that was heard and understood in every corner of the gymnasium.

“Whereupon my mother, sitting in one of the folding chairs, positioned right in front of my basketball coach – who had benched me for staying out too late on the night before a game, because I had to attend a required school play rehearsal – my mother turned around, pointed her finger at the coach and said, ‘See there? That’s what he learned at play practice!’

“And she was heard in every corner of the gymnasium too.

“But my mother knew – she just knew – that for me, play practice was as important as basketball practice. And she was absolutely correct.”

This old but true story about in-season demands of school sports actually raises two of the key issues of the debate about out-of-season coaching rules.

One is that we are not talking only about sports. School policies should not only protect and promote opportunities for students to participate in more than one sport; they should also allow for opportunities for students to participate in the non-athletic activities that comprehensive, full-service schools provide.

This is because surveys consistently link student achievement in school as well as success in later life with participation in both the athletic and non-athletic activities of schools. Proper policies permit students time to study, time to practice and play sports and time to be engaged in other school activities that provide opportunities to learn and grow as human beings.

A second issue the story presents is that parents have opinions about what is best for their children. In fact, they feel even more entitled to express those opinions today than my mother did almost 50 years ago. In fact, today, parents believe they are uniquely entitled to make the decisions that affect their children. And often they take the attitude that everyone else should butt out of their business!

The MHSAA knows from direct experience that while school administrators want tighter controls on what coaches and students do out of season, and that most student-athletes and coaches will at least tolerate the imposed limits, parents will be highly and emotionally critical of rules that interfere with how they raise their children.

No matter the cost in time or money to join elite teams, take private lessons, travel to far-away practices and further-away tournaments, no matter how unlikely any of this provides the college athletic scholarship return on investment that parents foolishly pursue, those parents believe they have every right to raise their own children their own way and that it’s not the MHSAA’s business to interfere.

It is for this very reason that MHSAA rules have little to say about what students can and can’t do out of season. Instead, the rules advise member schools and their employees what schools themselves have agreed should be the limits. The rules do this to promote competitive balance. They do this in order to avoid never-ending escalating expense of time and money to keep up on the competitive playing field, court, pool, etc.

Every example we have of organized competitive sports is that, in the absence of limits, some people push the boundaries as far as they can for their advantage, which forces other people to go beyond what they believe is right in order to keep up.

If, during the discussions on out-of-season rules, someone suggests that certain policies be eliminated, thinking people will pause to ask what life would be like without those rules.

Our outcome cannot be mere elimination of regulation, which invites chaos; the objective must be shaping a different future.

A good start would be simpler, more understandable and enforceable rules. A bad ending would be if it forces more student-athletes and school coaches to focus on a single sport year-round.

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for MHSAA.com in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)